This article is © 2016 by Stephen J. Sniegoski. All rights reserved by author.
This version was posted at The Last Ditch on June 11, 2016 by WTM Enterprises.


Trump and the “fascist” charge


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Let me begin with this disclaimer. This essay is not intended as an endorsement of Donald Trump for president. There are many valid reasons to criticize Trump. In his presidential campaign, he has been vulgar, childish, and extremely general in most of his political positions; and when he does express something specific, he tends to quickly change it. It is hard to discern what he would do as president. Moreover, his financial support from leading Israel-firster Sheldon Adelson [1] casts doubt on whether Trump would act as the non-interventionist that some expect him to be, at least as far as the Middle East is concerned. [2]

Despite those obvious flaws, Trump's enemies find it necessary to lay more extreme charges. They are often based on distortions of what Trump actually says. For example, his reference to deporting illegal Mexican immigrants, which would simply mean enforcing existing immigration law, is transmogrified into deporting or in some way discriminating against Mexicans in general, legal and illegal.

His adversaries have similarly distorted Trump's advocacy of temporarily banning Muslim immigration to allow for proper vetting. Initially, Trump may not have been perfectly clear on exactly whom the ban would apply to, but early on he pointed out that it would not apply to U.S. citizens or Muslim diplomats, who are not, of course, immigrants. The president may enact such a ban under established case law, according to some constitutional scholars (see Note 3). Bans based on political ideas that are seen as violent threats to public safety have been imposed in the past.

Nevertheless, Trump's critics have further twisted his positions as calling for discrimination against minorities in general and women. Pro-Israel liberal Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, who supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq, writes that Trump's popular appeal has made Cohen fearful of his fellow Americans, and he implies that the next victims could be blacks and Jews. [3]

Transcending even Cohen's fear-mongering is the contention that Trump is a fascist. One of the more developed essays in this genre is Robert Kagan's recent anti-Trump diatribe, "How fascism comes to America," featured in the Washington Post. [4] As a member of a family — Donald Kagan (father), Victoria Nuland (wife), Frederick Kagan (brother), Kimberly Kagan (sister-in-law) — that forms a prominent part of the neoconservative nexus, Kagan has been deeply involved in America's unnecessary wars and overall aggressive war policy. It is noteworthy that the making of aggressive war was the major charge against Nazi Germany (and Nazism is usually identified with fascism) at Nuremberg and that the U.S. attack on Iraq also fell into the aggressive-war category. Iraq did not first attack the United States, and the U.S. attack lacked the sanction of the UN Security Council. [5]

Ergo, if one is to apply the fascist moniker to Trump, one should likewise apply it to Kagan, and perhaps even more definitively. The scope of that comparison could be expanded: anything said by Trump that has fascist implications has actually been carried out by past American leaders who loom large in the liberal and neocon pantheon.

Kagan begins by asserting that the acceptance of Trump by the Republican Party is "perilous to the republic." But Kagan attacks Trump for not having any real ideology or even consistent political positions, writing that "what Trump offers his followers are not economic remedies — his proposals change daily. What he offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence. His incoherent and contradictory utterances have one thing in common: They provoke and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with bits of fear, hatred and anger."

But the attitude Kagan ascribes to Trump was the very modus operandi of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the idol of neocons and liberals. Roosevelt and his supporters described his inconsistency as reflecting experimentation and pragmatism. Running on the 1932 Democratic platform of reducing the federal and state budgets by "not less" than 25 percent, Roosevelt accused the Herbert Hoover "Administration of being the greatest spending Administration in peacetime in all American history — one which piled bureau on bureau, commission on commission.... Bureaus and bureaucrats have been retained at the expense of the taxpayer. We are spending altogether too much money for government services which are neither practical nor necessary. In addition to this, we are attempting too many functions and we need a simplification of what the Federal government is giving the people." Roosevelt asked the American people "simply to assign to me the task of reducing the annual operating expenses of your national government." [6]

At the same time, he and his supporters criticized Hoover for doing nothing and alleged that the president was indifferent to the people's plight, although the deficit spending that Roosevelt denounced was intended, in a proto-Keynesian way, to alleviate the effects of the Depression. (It had the opposite effect.) [7]

Roosevelt's actual policies once in office were quite contradictory. Roosevelt cut government spending in the Economy Act of 1933, but at the same time he created special New Deal programs that were off budget. Some of his programs bordered on quackery. For instance, he believed that if he could increase the price of gold by having the federal government purchase it, other prices would increase as well. Increased prices, he believed, would lead to prosperity.

As historian Amity Shlaes writes: "What horrified markets even more was that FDR managed the operation personally, day by day, over a breakfast tray. No one ever knew what the increase would be. One Friday in November 1933, for example, Roosevelt told Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau that he thought the gold price ought to be raised 21 cents. Why that amount, Morgenthau asked. 'Because it's three times seven,' FDR replied." [8]

As the Depression dragged on, Roosevelt denounced businessmen as the culprits. In regard to the Recession of 1937-38, economist Robert Higgs writes: "Ever the politician, the President blamed the depression on 'economic royalists' intent on destroying him — 'I welcome their hatred,' he declared — and he set in motion a large-scale investigation by the newly created Temporary National Economic Committee, as well as dramatically beefed-up antitrust prosecutions to bring these 'princes of property' to heel and to punish them for mounting a 'strike of capital' intended to 'sabotage' recovery." [9]

Since the establishment media go ballistic over Trump's reference to possible conspiracies, we should note that Roosevelt promoted a full-scale conspiracy theory, claiming that American businesses were united in the effort to intentionally lose money so as to make Roosevelt look bad. Roosevelt not only made that zany claim but used the power of government to punish the alleged conspirators.

But let us return to Robert Kagan. "Republican politicians marvel at how he [Trump] has 'tapped into' a hitherto unknown swath of the voting public," Kagan writes. "But what he has tapped into is what the founders most feared when they established the democratic republic: the popular passions unleashed, the 'mobocracy.' Conservatives have been warning for decades about government suffocating liberty. But here is the other threat to liberty that Alexis de Tocqueville and the ancient philosophers warned about: that the people in a democracy, excited, angry and unconstrained, might run roughshod over even the institutions created to preserve their freedoms."

For his part, Roosevelt was quite willing to transform those institutions if they hindered his policies. In 1937, he wanted to expand the membership of the Supreme Court with his own nominees so that it could not strike down any of his programs. A struggle ensued in Congress, as most Republicans and many Democrats opposed the "court-packing" proposal; in any case, the court soon stopped killing New Deal programs, so the scheme was no longer necessary.

Kagan cites Alexander Hamilton's skepticism about popular rule in the 1790s as relevant to the current Trump phenomenon. (Hamilton has recently returned to the national limelight as the result of a popular "hip-hop" musical about him.) "As Alexander Hamilton watched the French Revolution unfold," Kagan opines, "he feared in America what he saw play out in France — that the unleashing of popular passions would lead not to greater democracy but to the arrival of a tyrant, riding to power on the shoulders of the people."

By implying that Hamilton was a model statesman, Kagan neglects to mention some of his positions that would be called tyrannical if broached by Trump. For instance, the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts were enacted by Hamilton's ruling Federalist Party during the undeclared naval war with France from 1798 to 1800 — a war that stemmed from French attacks on American merchant ships. (The French maintained that the United States had violated the terms of its 1778 treaty with France, which in their interpretation obligated the United States to aid France during wartime and also in its friendly dealings with Britain.) The Alien Enemies Act included a provision that called for the deportation of "alien enemies" in time of war, while the Alien Friends Act authorized the president to deport any non-citizen suspected of plotting against the government in either wartime or peacetime. The Sedition Act included provisions to punish anyone who wrote or printed articles critical of government leaders.

President John Adams sought peace with France, but Hamilton wanted to transform the limited naval war into a full-scale war, in which he would personally lead the American army in an attack on New Orleans, which he expected France to take from Spain. Adams, however, was able to arrange a peace agreement before Hamilton's full-scale war could materialize. The election of 1800 enabled the Republicans under Thomas Jefferson to gain the presidency and control of Congress, which was very discouraging to Hamilton. On July 10, 1804, the day before he was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton wrote a letter to Theodore Sedgwick, a Federalist from Massachusetts, in which he characterized democracy as a "disease" and a "poison." [10] Obviously, the United States did not descend into chaos or tyranny under the aegis of Jefferson's Republican Party.

Except for the Alien Enemies Act, the repressive laws expired or were repealed after the end of Adams's presidency in 1801. The Alien Enemies Act, however, continues to exist in a revised form. Roosevelt used it in World War II to imprison Japanese, German, and Italian aliens. Most extreme was Roosevelt's deportation of tens of thousands of ethnic Japanese, who had not engaged in any form of subversion, from the Pacific Coast to concentration camps in the interior. The majority of them were American citizens. Many lost all of their property as a result. Roosevelt actually imprisoned people because of their race, but Trump has only stated that as president he would enforce existing immigration law by deporting illegal immigrants, not Mexicans who have a legal right to be in the United States. Under President Obama, illegal aliens have been deported in limited numbers. And under President Eisenhower, more than 2 million Mexicans who were residing illegally in the United States were forcibly deported.

In short, Trump's proposed deportation policy (if limited to illegal immigrants) might be unwise, might be unattainable, or might lack compassion, but it would be legal and would simply reflect strict enforcement of immigration law.

Contending that the "phenomenon" of a movement like Trump's "has generally been called 'fascism,'" Kagan maintains that "[s]uccessful fascism was not about policies but about the strongman, the leader (Il Duce, Der Führer), in whom could be entrusted the fate of the nation. Whatever the problem, he could fix it. Whatever the threat, internal or external, he could vanquish it, and it was unnecessary for him to explain how."

When self-described Fascists did rule Italy, Roosevelt and prominent members of his government regarded their program as commendable. In June 1933, Roosevelt praised Mussolini in a letter to an American diplomat, stating: "I am much interested and deeply impressed by what he has accomplished and by his evidenced honest purpose of restoring Italy and seeking to prevent general European trouble." Shortly thereafter, Roosevelt would write in another letter that "I don't mind telling you in confidence that I am keeping in fairly close touch with the admirable Italian gentleman." [11]

Rexford Guy Tugwell, a leading member of Roosevelt's Brain Trust and an ardent proponent of central planning, returned from a visit to Italy with a glowing view of its government: "It's the cleanest, neatness [sic], most efficiently operating piece of social machinery I've ever seen. It makes me envious." [12]

The most fascistic aspect of the New Deal was the National Industrial Recovery Act, passed in June 1933, which set up the National Recovery Administration (NRA). On the basis of the peculiar idea that excessive ("cut-throat") competition was the cause of the Depression, businesses were pressured to cooperate with similar trades or industries in codes that would establish "fair" prices, production quotas, and other non-competitive practices, and provide "fair" wages and working hours for labor. Businesses that abided by the codes were allowed to display a "Blue Eagle" emblem. Massive amounts of government propaganda, including gigantic parades, pressured the public to patronize only those businesses that displayed the Blue Eagle. The whole program very closely resembled corporatism, the essence of a fascist economy.

Hugh Johnson, administrator of the NRA, wanted America to imitate the "dynamic pragmatism" of Mussolini. (Johnson was chosen as Time Magazine's "Man of the Year" for 1933 over President Roosevelt.) Upon resigning from his position in 1935 because of mounting opposition to his practices, Johnson made reference to the "shining name" of Mussolini. [13]

None of that means that Roosevelt set up a brutal, fascist state like Mussolini's Italy, much less a genocidal one like Hitler's Germany (which most people refer to as fascistic). But the connection to fascism appears to be much greater in respect to what Roosevelt did than to anything Donald Trump has said. Certainly, many people believe that Trump will solve America's problems. Their respective admirers have expressed the same belief for Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and even Barack Obama, and those men have been idolized to a higher degree and by far more people than Trump. In contrast, many people back Trump, not because they think he could turn the country around, but because he dares to criticize the political establishment, including the mainstream media, and cavalierly violates political correctness. [14]

Unlike other conservative Republicans, Trump does not focus on reducing the size of the federal government, but it is not apparent that he intends to expand the scope and power of the federal government beyond the levels it has attained under recent presidents. Trump is a nationalist, but what other strong nationalists are prominent in American public life, if we are to judge from their expressed views? Though senior neocons — Bill Kristol, David Brooks, and Max Boot, in addition to Robert Kagan — have been leading figures in the "Never Trump" movement, C. Bradley Thompson, author of Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea, describes their faction as follows:

Following Irving Kristol and Leo Strauss, David Brooks, William Kristol, and a new generation of neocons proclaimed the "nation" as the fundamental unit of political reality, "nationalism" as the rallying cry for a new public morality, and the "national interest" as the moral standard of political decision-making. This new nationalism, according to Brooks, "marries community goodness with national greatness."

The moral purpose of national-greatness conservatism, according to David Brooks, is to energize the American spirit; to fire the imagination with something majestic; to advance a "unifying American creed"; and to inspire Americans to look beyond their narrow self-interest to some larger national mission — to some mystically Hegelian "national destiny." The new American citizen must be animated by "nationalist virtues" such as "duty, loyalty, honesty, discretion, and self-sacrifice." The neocons' basic moral-political principle is clear and simple: the subordination and sacrifice of the individual to the nation-state. [15]

This idea of government's providing an overriding ethos and morality to its citizenry was expressed by fascists, and it transcends anything Trump has said about "Mak[ing] America Great Again."

Establishment liberals and neoconservatives, and sometimes even conservatives, become angry when Congress blocks their proposals, and they often maintain that the president does not have enough power. They are quite willing to support the expansion of presidential power beyond what the actual wording of the Constitution would allow. For example, it has now become commonplace to make war without a congressional declaration of war. In the U.S. attack on Libya, sought by neoconservatives and many establishment liberals, President Obama did not obtain any type of congressional approval or report to Congress in the timely manner prescribed by law. In areas where Congress was likely to oppose Obama's position — immigration, gun control, climate change — he has opted for executive orders. [16]

A few establishment commentators acknowledge those violations, but their position seems to be that while this overreach is acceptable for establishment suzerains, something must be done to restrict the powers of a possible President Trump. The need for a double standard to stop Trump is reflected in the title of an article on the subject in the establishment organ The Atlantic, "End the Imperial Presidency Before It's Too Late." [17]

Of course, it is not apparent the Trump would do anything more destructive to the American republic than what has already bent it out of shape. And part of the Trump threat, in the view of many establishment suzerains, would be an effort to reduce American wars and global alliances, which have been the source of much of the trouble that America currently faces. In short, the establishment would act to prevent America's global empire from being dismantled. While it would be beneficial to return the U.S. government to something closer to what the Founders originally intended (the distortions are probably too great now for an actual restoration), rules established to limit a President Trump would not achieve that aim. Note how the War Powers Act of 1973, which was enacted to prevent another Vietnam, has been ignored with impunity by presidents and given little attention by the media establishment.

Is Trump a fascist? If "fascism" means the degree of tyranny and oppression that existed in Mussolini's Italy or Hitler's Germany, the answer is a resounding no. And if "fascist" means that Trump would move in that direction more than modern American presidents have, that too is not apparent. [18]

In using the word "fascism," Kagan is using not a real descriptive term but a term of opprobrium characteristically used by liberals and leftists against people on the Right, one that conjures up the oppression and terrorism of Nazism more than actual Italian Fascism, which itself was also more oppressive than existing American society. [19] Trump has many negative characteristics, but fascism of that type is not one of them. If one means something else — that Trump's proposed policies bear some resemblances to what existed in Fascist Italy, or even Nazi Germany — then one should recognize that Trump's proposals are no different from what exists, and has existed, in modern American society in terms of reducing individual liberty.

The extreme claim about Trump's fascism, however, is far from being a harmless mistake, and it could be playing a significant role in the violence perpetrated by anti-Trump mobs at Trump's campaign rallies. The establishment media claim that Trump brings about that violence with his own rhetoric. But if overwrought rhetoric can cause violence, then the violence at his campaign events is more likely due to the mainstream media's portrayal of him as a dangerous fascist threat to all minorities and women. Ω

June 11, 2016

Published in 2016 by WTM Enterprises.
© 2016 by Stephen J. Sniegoski. All rights reserved by author.

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1. According to Haaretz, Adelson is arranging for Trump to take a trip to Israel before the Republican convention.

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2. Justin Raimondo, for example, believes that Trump's views "signify a sea change in the foreign policy discourse" away from global interventionism; but Raimondo did not vote for him (or anyone else for president) in the California primary, because of Trump's unreliability and flip flops. Raimondo did not want to be responsible for what Trump might do, but he still writes that he is rooting for him and, even more so, the movement he has spawned. See "Why I Didn't Vote for Trump," Antiwar.com, May 27, 2016.

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3. On the Muslim ban, see Ben Swann, "Reality Check: Trump Right about Legal Authority to Ban Muslim Immigrants, Other Pres. Candidates Hypocritical on Muslims?," Truth in Media, December 10, 2015; Steven Nelson, "Top Scholars Say Trump Muslim Immigrant Ban May Be Constitutional," U.S. News, December 8, 2015; and Alex Swoyer, "Constitutional Prof: 'Clear Statutory Authority' for Donald Trump's Muslim Immigration Ban," Breitbart, December 12, 2015.

Richard Cohen, "Trump has taught me to fear my fellow Americans," May 30, 2016.

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4. That is the title of the print version; the online version is titled, "This is how fascism comes to America," Washington Post, May 18, 2016.

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5. Kofi Annan, then UN secretary-general, said in September 2004: "From our point of view and the UN Charter point of view, it [the war] was illegal." See "Legality of the Iraq War," Wikipedia.

Leading pro-war neocon Richard Perle acknowledged the same thing, stating: "International law ... would have required us to leave Saddam Hussein alone." See Oliver Burkeman and Julian Borger, "War critics astonished as US hawk admits invasion was illegal," The Guardian, November 30, 2003.

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6. Stephen J. Sniegoski, "The unknown conservative: Roosevelt's original New Deal," The Last Ditch, January 7, 2015.

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7. Murray N. Rothbard, "Herbert Hoover and the Myth of Laissez-Faire," 1966, posted at The Internet Guy, December 15, 2008; Rothbard, America's Great Depression (PDF), fifth edition (Mises Institute, 2000), pp. 336. Rothbard summarizes Hoover's record thus:

Mr. Hoover met the challenge of the Great Depression by acting quickly and decisively, indeed almost continuously throughout his term of office, putting into effect "the greatest program of offense and defense" against depression ever attempted in America. Bravely he used every modern economic "tool," every device of progressive and "enlightened" economics, every facet of government planning, to combat the depression. For the first time, laissez-faire was boldly thrown overboard and every governmental weapon thrown into the breach. America had awakened, and was now ready to use the State to the hilt, unhampered by the supposed shibboleths of laissez-faire. President Hoover was a bold and audacious leader in this awakening. By every "progressive" tenet of our day, he should have ended his term a conquering hero; instead he left America in utter and complete ruin — a ruin unprecedented in length and intensity.

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8. Amity Shlaes, "A Chilling Uncertainty: The Lessons of Roosevelt's Experimentation," Washington Post, December 31, 2008.

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9. Robert Higgs, "America's Depression within a Depression, 1937-39," Foundation for Economic Education, October 22, 2010.

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10. That is a reference to a project of some Federalist leaders in New England to secede from the United States and form a northern confederacy. "I will here express but one sentiment, which is, that Dismemberment of our Empire will be a clear sacrifice of great positive advantages, without any counterbalancing good; administering no relief to our real Disease; which is Democracy, the poison of which by a subdivision will only be the more concentered in each part, and consequently the more virulent." See "From Alexander Hamilton to Theodore Sedgwick, 10 July 1804," Founders Online.

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11. John Patrick Diggins, Mussolini and Fascism: The View from America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972), p. 279.

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12. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Three New Deals: Reflections on Roosevelt's America, Mussolini's Italy, and Hitler's Germany, 1933-1939 (New York: Henry Holt, 2006), p. 32. Tugwell was a strong advocate of central planning, as opposed to the free market and while not a complete socialist believed that government should take the leadership in that planning. See Steven A. Chichester, "'Make America Over': Rexford Guy Tugwell and his Thoughts on Central Planning," master's thesis, Liberty University, 2011.

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13. Diggins, p. 280; James Q. Whitman, "Of Corporatism, Fascism and the First New Deal," Faculty Scholarship Series, Paper 660, 1991.

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14. David Harsany, "Donald Trump's Secret Weapon Is Hillary Clinton," National Review, May 27, 2016.

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15. C. Bradley Thompson, "Neoconservatism Unmasked," Cato Unbound, March 7, 2011.

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16. Joel B. Pollack, "Donald Trump Is the Constitutional Lesson Democrats Deserve," Breitbart, May 16, 2016.

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17. Conor Friedersdorf, "End the Imperial Presidency Before It's Too Late," The Atlantic, May 23, 2016.

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18. Corey Robin, "Robert Kagan, Donald Trump, and the Liberal Imagination," Crooked Timber, May 19, 2016.

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19. Communists and other leftists apply the term "fascism" to German Nazism.

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